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The distinction between interpreter and translator April 18, 2011

Posted by Jill (@bonnjill) in Random musings, Translation.

An ongoing debate in our industry is whether or not to push the distinction between an interpreter and a translator. We in the industry all know that interpreters talk and translators work with the written word, but people outside the industry automatically assume I am an interpreter when I say I am a translator. I have to explain to almost everyone I meet that I prefer to “sit behind my computer and find the perfect word” instead of rambling on until my point gets across (because, believe me, if I were an interpreter that would be EXACTLY what would happen – I was not blessed with the gift of off-the-cuff speaking like my interpreter colleagues…).

It certainly doesn’t help that those in television, movies and print media don’t even know the difference. We all cringe when we hear “We need a translator in here!” when a police officer on a show like Law & Order: SVU or CSI needs to interview a witness who doesn’t speak English. But it seems only a translator or interpreter even notices the difference. The most recent episode of The Good Wife is a good example of this. An ongoing storyline features America Ferrera’s character as an undocumented worker who had been brought to the States at age 2 and was working as a nanny for the political opponent of the main character’s husband. The husband’s cunning political consultant leaked the story, but has fallen for her character so he was secretly trying to get her naturalization paperwork pushed through and even saved her father from being deported the week before. This past week she was working as an intern for the main character’s law firm. She just happened to notice a mistranslation in a previous translation that gained them a decisive advantage in the deposition between an oil company and a drilling company that was owned $87 million and just happened to be nationalized by Hugo Chavez that day. She then interpreted for the team of lawyers in the deposition – and even for Hugo Chavez in Venezuela via a monitor. Her efforts won them a settlement – all as a lowly intern. What a gal!

In real life, the Jenner twins and Corinne McKay were recently featured on NPR explaining the difference between an interpreter and translator, and NPR got it wrong in a story the very next day…

It’s enough to make anyone throw their hands up in the air and stop bothering. A colleague on one of my German listservs is quite vocal about no longer bothering with clearing up the misconception. She feels it simply isn’t worth the effort. I say we still need to continue fighting the good fight, but we need to know when to inform and educate and when to simply move on and not belabor the point. As Corinne states in the comments of the aforenamed blog post, she adheres to Chris Durban’s advice of “keep it short, upbeat, don’t harass and harangue!”

The need to stress one minor point is still desperately needed though… As one of my colleagues so concisely put it “The skill and training to translate and/or interpret in one direction does not mean you can do it in the other. People unfamiliar with the work involved somehow imagine that anyone who translates German to English, for example, can obviously translate from English to German (or Chinese to English, for that matter — “it’s only a couple of sentences!”)”.



1. Maria Guzenko - April 18, 2011

Funny you should write about it, I just wrote about how Russian uses the same word for both translators and interpreters. It’s funny that English speakers should do the same since English DOES have separate words for them. It might be caused by the polysemy of the word “interpreting,” I suppose.

Jill (@bonnjill) - April 18, 2011

Interesting. I didn’t know that. FWIW, German also differentiates between the two – dolmetschen/Dolmetscher(in) for interpreting/interpreter and übersetzen/Übersetzer(in) for translation/translator.

2. Corinne McKay - April 18, 2011

Great post! Selfishly, I’d like to think that NPR gets it right more often than they did before Judy’s letter!

3. Adhi - April 18, 2011

Nice to read. I never thought before that problem also exists in the English-speaking countries, while the misperception is very common in Indonesia. Last week I had an offer saying “Translator needed for a month with double digit fee”. When I contacted the company, they explained the job description and eventually it was an interpreter job! I guess we need to educate our potential clients.

4. Carin - April 19, 2011

Thank you! I’m also always explaining that I am a translator, not an interpreter. I find deep breathing exercises helps a lot when confronted with questions about translating/interpreting and the inevitable “How many languages do you speak?”

5. Maria Rosaria Carbone - April 19, 2011

I think it’s absolutely necessary to continue stressing the difference between an interpreter and a translator because these two professions involve completely different skills. The problem is always the same: people are not really interested in what we do and, consequently, are convinced that language knowledge is enough to perform these jobs.

6. Batjavkhaa Batsaikhan - April 19, 2011

An interesting post. The Mongolian language also has a clear distinction between translator (орчуулагч) and interpreter (хэлмэрч). But people still use the same word (орчуулагч) for the translator and interpreter, just the same as in your post. Can I post your article in my blog?

Jill (@bonnjill) - April 19, 2011

Sure, as long as you credit that I wrote it and include a link back to the post feel free to post it in your blog. We have had several cases where people just reprint articles on their blog without mentioning the actual author. One case was just discussed on Twitter yesterday in fact. In that case the person who wrote the post out and out plagiarized the writer’s article, which is a no-no and she probably lost her job because of it. So thanks for asking first!

Batjavkhaa Batsaikhan - April 19, 2011

Thank you. I always mention the author and the link. Thanks again.

7. patenttranslator - April 19, 2011

The difference between “translating” and “interpreting” is always clear in some languages. For example, as far as I can remember, my boss and my colleagues in Japan never mixed up “honyaku shite” (please translate this) with “tsuyaku shite” (please interpret this). I think it may have something to do with the fact that characters in Japanese are more “meaningful” than mere words. Maria also has a good point about the two meanings of the word “interpret” in English, which is something that does not exist in equivalents of this word in some other languages.

In other languages, such as English, French, or Czech, the distinction between translate and interpret is usually made only by some people, usually professionals.

No matter how much noise translators make about it, it is not going to change.

That is what I think. We don’t have the power to change the way the language is used.

8. Jeff Hershberger - April 19, 2011

The difference between interpreting and translating is probably a lot like the difference between being a writer and being a public speaker or maybe a negotiator. Some people are better at one than the other. I’ve always preferred writing, I’m not afraid to admit that.

9. antra_marathi - April 20, 2011

Here in India, Whenever client a new client called us they says they require “translators” to come there office and explain the meetings. We have to explain them that there is a huge difference between two, Where one has to sit front of a computer and other has to be upfront of client. However what i feel that term “translator” is more famous rather interpreter ? What do you think

10. Tess Whitty - April 20, 2011

Great post and comments of a perpetual dilemma for us. Shortly after I have explained that I only work with the written word, in front of a computer, the person continues with. So who do you work for? Are there many companies in Utah that need Swedish translations??? And on we go…. Perhaps we should make little cards explaining this, or recordings. 😉

11. May - April 22, 2011

I think the lack of distinction can also be attributed to the fact that there are many translators who interpret and vice versa. The ‘Good Wife’ may have combined the two for character expediency, but I’m sure it’s pretty common for someone to perform both functions within a company.

Where I am located, it is not uncommon to find translators who translate in both directions AND who also interpret in both directions. When I explain that I translate only, and into English only, it’s as if I’ve admitted to being a picky eater. I would attribute the prevalence of bi-directional translator/interpreters here to a lack of awareness about professional standards, but equally to the nature of the local market, which encourages linguists to be jack-of-all-(language)-trades.

12. Zachary Overline - April 26, 2011

Although I’m not a translator (nor an interpreter), I am fluently bilingual, which people often confuse for being able to translate or interpret. Sure, I can help my friends haggle at the supermarket, and can write grammatically correct and relatively natural sentences in my second language. But have me translate professionally in one direction or the other? Hell no. I’d suck at it.

One time a friend of mine was in a pinch and brought me in to interpret a business meeting between him and a potential investor. It went okay, but they were talking about contract specifics for million-dollar deals, and it made me really, really uncomfortable knowing I wasn’t a professional interpreter. Luckily we all ended up getting really drunk and it didn’t matter all that much what anyone was rambling about at that point. But still… coulda’ been bad.

13. Judy Jenner - April 28, 2011

Ah, one of my favorite subjects. 🙂 It is indeed annoying, but also amusing, and we can all do a little educational work by kindly pointing out the difference. My favorite tool so far is this handy cartoon by Alejandro Moreno Ramos:


And I agree with Corinne, NPR does get it right more frequently now — but still makes the mistake. I’ll keep on sending e-mails. 🙂

14. Andie Ho - May 8, 2011

I used to be annoyed by this, but not anymore. I don’t know the difference between an optometrist and ophthamologist off the top of my head, and while my math professor boyfriend draws a stark line between the “math dept” and the “statistics dept,” to me it’s all the same. I don’t expect everyone in the world to understand the nuances of my profession, so I just quietly educate them if it makes a difference in the conversation. Otherwise, I just come across as pedantic.

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